Stargazing and Sufi Poetics

Stargazing and Sufi Poetics

Ian Trump reviews Robert Bly's The Night Abraham Called to the Stars.


When I interviewed Robert Bly on an icy London evening in December 1997, he talked about the Eskimo. This was a short while after the English publication of his second popular prose work, The Sibling Society, a book far more radical in its propositions and conclusions than Iron John had been. Where the earlier book dealt with the boy-child's journey to maturity, this new book focused on the end of that journey–adulthood–or, rather, the lack of it in contemporary society. Without getting too close to what remains a touchy topic in liberal society, the book circled around the subject of authority, trying to wrest it from its negative associations and historical abuses. Bly was interested in the meaning of maturity, which he posited as a state of dignity, clarity and power, and he was concerned about the effects of our having removed the positive hierarchies and limitations that previously aided our passage to genuine adulthood. So he was intrigued to have read somewhere that the Eskimo were the most adult people on the face of the earth. This was because, as he put it, "Adulthood is connected, in some mysterious way that no one understands, with the number of limitations that there are in your life." And of course the deprivation and difficulty of living with extreme weather and other conditions give ample limitations.

But the reason we turned to the Eskimo was that we were speaking about poetry, and poets have always had to work with limitations. Most of the poets of Bly's generation–he spoke specifically of Ginsberg, James Wright and Louis Simpson–learned and practiced traditional forms at the beginning of their careers. "And then free verse came, and we went into free verse, which is really un-Eskimo-like behavior." He and his young fellow poets gave up their limitations and wrote the free-form work for which they are now best known. But Bly went on to say, "I'm 70 now, and I'm more and more interested in finding limitations in poetry, so I'm going back and finding ones, even though I don't have to."

He had then just published in the United States his last volume of new work, Morning Poems. The self-imposed limitation that governed that book was the discipline of writing a poem every morning–following the habit of his friend William Stafford, who woke early most mornings to write, from the period of his internment as a conscientious objector during World War II until his death in 1993. Bly explained that his own working method had been to remain in bed until he finished the poem, which on some days meant getting up at dawn, on others at noon.

The Night Abraham Called to the Stars has a different set of limitations entirely: The poems are all written in an invented eighteen-line form consisting of six three-line stanzas, with unrhymed lines of between nine and fourteen syllables in length. The stanzas, like those of the Islamic ghazals on which Bly based his form, are not necessarily linked in theme or narrative. As Bly put it in his introduction to the volume of Ghalib's ghazals that he translated with Sunil Dutta, "It slowly becomes clear that we are dealing with a way of adventuring one's way through a poem utterly distinct from our habit of textual consistency in theme" (The Lightning Should Have Fallen on Ghalib). Like Ghalib's work, Bly's new poems often jump from praise to despair, from absurdity to love, but sometimes he runs lines on between stanzas, as in the first poem, from which the book takes its title:


Do you remember the night Abraham first called
To the stars? He cried to Saturn: "You are my Lord!"
How happy he was! When he saw the Dawn Star,

He cried, "You are my Lord!" How destroyed he was
When he watched them set. Friends, he is like us:
We take as our Lord the stars that go down.
         ("The Night Abraham Called to the Stars")


The poems of the book's final section tighten the limitation by requiring also that each stanza end on the same word:


I never understood that abundance leads to war,
Nor that manyness is gasoline on the fire.
I never knew that the horseshoe longs for night.

During my twenties I worked in the opal mines.
No one could open the door to Saturn's house.
I had no choice but to live in my father's night.
         ("Noah Watching the Rain")


Since his 1994 volume, Meditations on the Insatiable Soul, Bly's work has more clearly expressed his interest in spiritual themes, and in the imagery and storytelling of several spiritual traditions, especially the Gnostic heritage and that of Sufism, the mystical aspect of Islam. Indeed, the title of that book was itself a translation of a distinction observed in Sufism–it designates the lowest aspect of the nafs, the fourfold Sufi concept of the soul. In The Sibling Society, Bly quoted Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, head of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis, and the person to whom his new poems are dedicated:


This nafs is of a bestial character that harasses other created beings and consistently sings its own praise. It always follows its own desires and grazes on the field of material nature; it drinks from the spring of the passions and knows only how to sleep, eat, and gratify itself.


Rumi sometimes calls this the "Animal Soul," which he symbolized as a snake in a poem quoted in The Sibling Society. The poem tells the story of a snake-catcher who goes into the mountains: "He wanted a friendly pet, and one that would amaze/audiences, but he was looking for a reptile, something/that has no knowledge of friendship." He finds a snake that he believes to be dead, but that is actually only sleeping, which wakes and eats him as well as the audience gathered round to witness his remarkable bravery. The "insatiable soul" is like this–mean, unpredictable, likely to harm us and those around us; it will not be our friend.

This has become a commanding image in Bly's work: It stands for all the powers of immaturity, for all that blocks us from true individuation and adulthood, eventually for what most fundamentally keeps us from union with the Beloved, the transcendental ideal for which Sufi mystics long. In the new poems, this nafs has different names and a range of imageries–sometimes Bly speaks of it directly, as when he writes, "We all live close to our greedy souls./We have inherited so many longings/That in the other world our name is 'So Many.'" But it is invoked, too, when he says "a dove's breastbone is a cathedral of desire." This nafs is the animal aspect of our consciousness not only in the sense that it is desiderative, but in that it is also frequently stupid, motivating us to do things we regret, or to harbor feelings that harm us or others, or simply to think in ways that are foolish and ridiculous:


My greedy soul and I share the same room.
When I see a book written two thousand years
Ago, I check to see if my name is mentioned.
         ("The Five Inns")


Without directly invoking this nafs, Bly speaks of its effects when, in another poem, he confesses some of the stridency and opinionatedness of his own earlier writing:


One teaspoon of envy was enough for me
To attack Robert Lowell; with a tablespoon
I could have taken on Henry James or Abelard.
         ("The Way the Parrot Learns")


One of the stages of the journey described in Iron John is a period of humiliation, which Bly termed katabasis, a word referring to military retreat but derived from Greek roots meaning literally "to go down." In the Iron John story it refers to a time when the young hero works in the kitchens of a castle, way down in the building's basement, close to the earth. The kind of self-parody and playful confession in the passage quoted from "The Way the Parrot Learns" exemplifies a kind of katabasis in Bly's mature work. Increasingly in his last few books he has considered his past work and opinions, and reflected with humility and sadness on some of his own attitudes. Eating the Honey of Words, the new and selected volume published in 2000, included some telling revisions of earlier work, changes that usually made the poems less strident and opinionated. In another of the Abraham poems, Bly admits, "The muddler you are reading has lied to you/Often." Humiliation is one of the best ways of dealing with the "hungry soul": It longs for praise and gratification–telling the truth undermines its vanity and desire. A poem about a painting by Rembrandt ends saying, "The father protects his son by washing him in the night." The line is ambiguous: The father washes the child at nighttime, and in the waters of darkness. Another poem declares, "The soul is in love with marshy ground and snails,/With mud, darkness, wind, smoke and fire." This elemental imagery of descent runs through Abraham–there is much mud here. "My poems are sad," Bly writes. "How could it be otherwise?" But his poems are also joyful, filled with a reflective pleasure in the passing moment but tinged with sadness at each moment's ending. The collection begins and ends with poems about setting stars, the closing lines of the final poem circling round to the book's first words, quoted above:


People in love with the setting stars are right
To adore the baby who smells of the stable, but we know
That even the setting stars will disappear at dawn.


Like the line about the father washing his son in the night, there is poignant ambiguity in this image, for though, like Abraham, we are "destroyed" when we watch the stars we love go down, it is into the brightness of day that they disappear.

Many of the poets who began writing around the time Bly did have already died; almost all the masters and exemplars who guided him are long dead, many have already faded from public memory, some from literary memory. The patterns of influence within his work are wide-ranging–Bly has read voraciously in the literatures of many languages and times. Among his contemporaries, the late William Stafford stands out more and more clearly as Bly's closest confrère–his vision and his sympathies were similarly broad, and he expressed in his poems a sense of care and value that resonates with Bly's work. The poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars mark the ripening of a new current in Bly's career: Now in his mid-70s, he is writing with tremendous energy and clarity and force, and producing some of the best work of his long career.

During a reading at the Globe Theatre in London, Bly spoke of Rumi as the most popular poet in America. The expression of longing is one of the most characteristic aspects of Rumi's poetry–the longing of the aspirant for his spiritual teacher, of man for God, which is often expressed in Sufi poetry as longing for the Beloved. The Night Abraham Called to the Stars expresses this yearning more urgently than any of Bly's prior work, and it's certain to be said that his poems are influenced by Rumi. But the points of coincidence run deeper than this, and too closely likening Bly's new poems to those of the great Sufi teacher is to take away from Bly's achievement. He has previously made versions of Rumi's work–as he has of work by Ghalib, Kabir, Tranströmer, Machado and others. Bly tells at least one story in Abraham that was told previously by Rumi. Coleman Barks, who is probably the best known of Rumi's many contemporary translators, has spoken of the pivotal role of Bly's early encouragement in his decision to dedicate so many years to the task of translation. But the poems of The Night Abraham Called to the Stars express more than influence, a word meaning, literally, a flowing-in from another source–Bly's poems flow from the same source as did Rumi's, the great current of longing for reality, for true maturity, the devotee's call to the Beloved.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy